Pepper and gambier

Pepper & gambier design on lamp-post
outside window of Hwa Mui restaurant
Place of honour for pepper and gambier in Johor history

Shortly after I took a friend from the US on a walking tour in the heart of Johor Bahru, I did that tour again but this time with a family of Australian friends.  We covered Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Trus with stops at quaint shops that are still doing the businesses that their grandfather’s started.  We shopped and snacked on freshly made cakes and breads and also visited the Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum.  

During the walk-about, we paused for a drink at Hua Mui restaurant at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby.  As we looked out of the open upstairs windows, the tops of lamp-posts were at eye level and a lively discussion ensued about the attractive motifs on the lamp-posts.  Coming in from the airport, my friends had already noticed that these motifs were repeated in different designs on lamp-posts along highways as well as in various city streets!

In the Sultan Abu Bakar Royal Museum in Istana Gardens, my friends had a glimpse of local culture and heritage and from the two sets of Chinese couplets that were presented by Chinese community leaders at the inauguration of the Johor Sultanate they got an idea of the warm relationship between the Chinese and Malay communities in the pioneering era.  In the Throne Room, they saw that the tops of the two ornately designed thrones for the ruler and his consort that also had this pepper and gambier motif.

Pepper & gambier design on frame of notice board
inside the Sultan Ibrahim building
This design that features intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants is probably so common in Johor that even many local people may not know the historical significance of these plants.   From information gathered through researching about Johor’s Chinese heritage for my articles on the Johor Ancient Chinese Temple, annual Chingay Parade and Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum, I learnt about Johor’s history and how the cultivation of pepper and gambier played a vital role in the state’s economy in the 1800’s.

At that time, Johor’s ruler, Temenggong Ibrahim, adopted the ‘Kangchu’ system that was first introduced by Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore.  As the waterways was the main mode of transport to Johor from Singapore early settlers arrived by boat up the infamous Sungai Segget into the heart of Johor Bahru.   Under the Temenggong Ibrahim administration, Chinese planters who arrived from Riau and Singapore obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler to cultivate pepper and gambier. 

Pepper & gambier design at the entrance into
Johor Chief Minister's office in Sultan Ibrahim Building
The permit holders were kangchu’s or river masters and their plots were named after them as Tan chu kang or Lim chu kang, and some of Johor’s prominent kangchu’s were Tan Kai Soon, Tan Hiok Nee, Lim Ah Siang and Wong Ah Fook.  Kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, while a kangkar is the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river. 

As Chinese immigrants prospered in Johor Bahru, pepper and gambier cultivation became widespread.  Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier in the 1880’s because large plantations were cultivated with pepper and gambier as the state’s economic crops.  In Singapore, names like Chua Chu Kang and Yeo Chu Kang are still used for those areas that were once huge plantations while Johor Baru still has places like Kangkar Tebrau and Kangkar Pulai as a legacy of this plantation culture. 

Flagstones in Bukit Timbalan etched
with pepper & gambier design
During the recent Johor Bahru Arts Festival, I was walking around Bukit Timbalan when I discovered a little footpath with flagstones that bore the pepper and gambier design.  Then I recalled how this pepper and gambier motif is widely used inside the iconic Sultan Ibrahim Building.  On my first visit to the Johor Chief Minister’s office, I was fascinated to see that this design was not only on the entrance fa├žade but also on the main door into his chambers and around notice boards in the lobby!

Pepper and gambier cultivation contributed so significantly to Johor’s economic progress that these humble plants now hold a place of honour in the state’s history.  So the next time you passed a lamp-post that’s designed with the pepper and gambier motif or saw it on any Johor designs, you know why.  And now you can share this interesting legacy that was born from the strong relationship between the Johor Chinese and Malay communities, with younger family members and visiting friends.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in August 2010

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